The founding father may never have had children of his own, but he was a father figure to a young man who served him and the country well.
Thus runs former U.S. Forest Service historian Clary’s serviceable account of the great friendship between Virginia plantation owner George Washington and “the very high and very mighty lord Monseigneur Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette.” Lafayette was descended from a long line of orphans, thanks to his family’s habit of volunteering for war; his own father was killed by a British artilleryman whom Lafayette claimed to have killed in return during the Revolutionary War. Lafayette grew up under the strong tutelage of the classics, which filled him with “glorious obsessions” that events usually conspired to stymie. Just so, Washington, who had made his Virginia militia one of the most effective combat units in the French and Indian War, was often frustrated by British bureaucrats, and he seems to have taken quickly to the teenaged Frenchman who crossed the ocean to volunteer for the revolutionary cause even after the French king had expressly forbidden him to do so. The rest of the Continental leadership, however, “had fallen for the notion that he went to America with the government’s secret approval,” and so Lafayette was welcomed everywhere; Washington’s army was so full of French officers seeking commissions that at first he worried about this new arrival, but in no time he was sharing his cloak with his newfound surrogate son. Clary notes that Washington had no qualms about sending Lafayette into mortal danger, and Lafayette none about putting himself there; there was nothing of nepotism, even elective, about the French officer’s rapid rise through the ranks. Lafayette’s fame grew even greater long after the war, when he returned for a tour of the U.S. and touched off a wave of places’ being named after him; when he died, “President [Andrew] Jackson called for the same honors that [John] Adams had ordered for Washington thirty-five years earlier.”
Reads well enough, but Clary’s account adds little to what is already known about either Washington or Lafayette.